Mistress Masham's Repose
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Mistress Masham's Repose (1946) is a novel by T. H. White that describes the adventures of a girl who discovers a group of Lilliputians, a race of tiny people from Jonathan Swift's satirical classic Gulliver's Travels. The story is set in Northamptonshire, England, just after the Second World War (someone wants to talk to Churchill, but it is revealed Clement Attlee is the PM); in one chapter Maria plays at being General Eisenhower greeting grateful subject peoples. Yet there is also a strong flavour of the 18th century, both the fictional land of Lilliput and the British Empire of Swift, Gibbon, and Pope. Imperialism, and the need for self-governance, is a major theme in the novel.
Maria, a ten-year-old orphaned girl, lives on a derelict family estate, her only companions being a loving family Cook and a retired Professor of Ancient Latin. These two try to protect Maria from her tall, fat, strict Governess, Miss Brown. The Governess makes the child's life miserable, taking her cue from Maria's guardian, a Vicar named Mr. Hater. Miss Brown and Mr Hater are conspiring to keep Maria poor and abandoned. The little girl does not go to school. In church, she has to walk all the way to her seat in oversized football boots which make a great deal of noise. She is shy, lonely and starved of affection. Meeting the Lilliputians and being tempted to love, to fear and to bully, she must save her friends and herself.
As the end-paper illustrations in the book show, the ruinous estate of Malplaquet has similarities with Stowe in Buckinghamshire, where White had taught at Stowe School during the 1930s, while the house is more like Blenheim Palace, the residence of the Dukes of Marlborough. The name is an allusion to Blenheim which depends upon knowing that the Battle of Blenheim was the first of the great Marlborough's major victories, while Malplaquet was his fourth and last. The titular Repose is a tiny forgotten island in the middle of an ornamental lake in the vast grounds of Malplaquet. A structure on it is occupied by descendants of the Lilliputians, brought to England two centuries earlier by a sea-captain, following their discovery by Lemuel Gulliver. The island provides the perfect setting for their timid and secretive civilisation, accessible only by boat and protected by a wall of brambles which is carefully cultivated by the island's occupants. Many of the monuments in the grounds of Malplaquet recall notable figures of the early 18th century; Mistress Masham's Repose itself commemorates Abigail Masham, a close confidante of Queen Anne. Although she has no other bearing on the story, she was a cousin of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, thus providing another link between the fictional Palace of Malplaquet and the real Blenheim Palace. Blenheim and Stowe are in turn linked to each other, in that Richard Temple, 1st Viscount Cobham, who developed the house and gardens at Stowe in the early eighteenth century, was a notable soldier who had served under the Duke of Marlborough.
The book was first published in the U.S. by Putnams, appearing in 1946. In the United Kingdom, the publisher was Jonathan Cape, and the first British edition is dated 1947, reprinted in 1963, 1972, 1979, and 2000. It went out of print in 2009 but was republished by Red Fox Books in 2011.
In the U.S. the book was out of print for many years until being re-issued by The New York Review Children's Collection.
Dedication and reception
- Martin Kellman, T. H. White and the Matter of Britain: A Literary Overview (1989), p. 769
- Mistress Masham's Repose at fantasticfiction.co.uk